Jesus died and suffered on the cross, but beyond that what did the crucifixion accomplish? “Atonement” is the term used to describe what Christ accomplished through His crucifixion. With millennia of church history behind us we should not be surprised by the vast attempts to explain the atonement. Some call the many explanations, “atonement theories.” Below, I explain the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement which is the biblical understanding of the atonement. I then list some of the most popular atonement theories from church history that openly contradict penal substitution. Outside of penal substitutionary atonement, each atonement theory is an overemphasis or a misunderstanding of the biblical teaching on the cross. The doctrine of penal substitution is the center that unites all other teachings of the cross. Essentially each atonement theory seeks to misplace a specific aspect of Christ’s work, but penal substitutionary atonement correctly relates each aspect to the whole.
Penal Substitutionary Atonement
This is the belief that Christ paid the penalty (hence, penal) as a substitute (hence, substitutionary) for sinners. He died in our place. The penalty stems from God being angry with sin and sinners. His moral character demands that His anger be quenched in the punishment of sin. The substitutionary idea comes forward in the Old Testament sacrificial system where God’s people present animals as sacrifices to appease His wrath. The sacrifices finally find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). Jesus was offered up to appease God. The result is that God’s wrath is fully satisfied in Jesus and turned away from those who believe. Conceptually, this idea has been articulated since ancient times, and it was crystallized during the theological recovery of the Protestant Reformation. It is the center from which all aspects of the atonement flow.
The Ransom Theory
The ransom theory teaches that God paid a ransom to Satan so that people could be set free from Satan’s enslavement. Proponents present the death of Christ as God’s ransom payment to Satan. Satan assumed he could keep Christ but was surprised when Christ rose from the dead. In one sense, God outwitted Satan into releasing humanity from captivity. It was developed by Origen in the third century. Advocates of this theory rely largely on 1 Corinthians 6:20 which states that we are bought with a price. The assumption of the ransom theory is that the payment went to Satan.
The ransom theory is found nowhere in Scripture. Yes, the world has been deceived by Satan. Yes, Christ offered Himself as a ransom for sinners. Yes Christ will overthrow all principalities. But to say that Christ was paid to Satan or to say that Christ did not propitiate God is to contradict Scripture. It neglects the just demands of God’s holiness, and it presents Satan as too powerful. God owes Satan nothing but hellfire. Instead of being offered as a ransom to Satan, Jesus was offered by God to God. The atonement was a Trinitarian event. God demands death for our sin, and Jesus paid that death. He is our ransom.
The Example Theory
The example theory of the atonement became popular in the sixteenth century. Advanced by Faustus and Laelius Socinus, it is also known as the Socinian theory. Denying that Christ died to pay for our sins, proponents of this theory argue that Jesus died to provide an example for humans to follow. Hence the name, example theory. Christ trusted God wholly even unto death, and we should follow His example. Jesus’ death teaches us to follow God when it is very difficult. Proponents largely rely on 1 Peter 2:21 and 1 John 2:6 to make their case.
This theory is right to emphasize that Christ is an example. His obedience unto death motivates us towards obedience. Nonetheless, this theory negates the guilt of our sin, and it also negates the justice of God. It renders His obedience hollow and vacuous. Christ obeyed God to the point of death because God loves His people and offered His Son in their place. He purchased us by His blood, and that payment, which was obedience, saves us from sin and thus fuels obedience in our hearts. To missunderstand this payment is to miss the full force of Christ’s example.
The Moral-Influence Theory
Proponents of the moral-influence theory argue that Christ died to display God’s love. Christ’s loving death should create within our hearts an openness to God. God does not require payment for sin. Instead, humans need to become more comfortable with God. Theoretically, that comfort stems from knowing that God identifies with us by Christ’s death. It was first developed in the twelfth century by Peter Abelard, but it was largely dormant until Horace Bushnell and Hastings Rashdall propagated it in the nineteenth century.
Champions of this theory put a strong emphasis on God’s love at the expense of God’s holiness and righteousness. In emphasizing man’s discomfort with God, they neglect to mention that God’s righteous hostility towards mankind must be quelled. Man is only uncomfortable with God because man is a rebel against God. So yes, the cross does demonstrate God’s love and does woo us Godward. But to miss that Christ died in the stead of lawless rebels is to miss the essence of God’s love.
The Governmental Theory
This theory presents Christ’s death as primarily a deterrent from sin. Advocates argue that God has a right to punish sin but He is not required to do so. In the best interest of humanity Christ died to demonstrate the wickedness of sin. Theoretically, when people understand the terror of Christ’s death they should be moved away from their sins to God. God forgives those who turn from sin, but Christ’s death is not the basis of that forgiveness. God forgives simply because He can. This view was developed by Hugo Grotius in the seventeenth century.
Christ does serve as an example of God’s judgment towards sinners because He actually received God’s judgment towards sinners, although He Himself had no sin. In our place He died. Those who do not repent will suffer excruciating torment for all eternity. That is not because God can punish people, which He certainly can and will, but because God must punish people. God didn’t only demonstrate His anger in Christ, but He also actually punished Him. The governmental theory minimizes the terror of sin, diminishes the love and holiness of God, and depicts the work of Christ as less than window dressing. To miss Christ’s payment for sin is to miss the full terror of His death and the love of His offering.
Potentially, there could be as many atonement theories as there are creative minds. And there are lots of those. Like each teaching, atonement theories must be weighed against the standard of Scripture. In doing so we find that each theory mentioned above is an attempt to emphasize an aspect of God’s character and work at the expense of the whole. Declaring one aspect of the atonement to be the one theory of the atonement is like saying a rainbow is purple, but not blue, not orange, not green, etc. Instead, when we understand that penal substitution is the center of the atonement we see the full spectrum of beauty in God’s plan. It’s like seeing the whole rainbow of colour and how each colour relates to the others, instead of seeing only one colour at the expense of the others. God’s glory is known fullest when we know Him fully. To understand the atonement is to understand God.